Union Square Holiday Market
Shoppers peruse the booths at the Union Square Holiday Market. (Credit: Mack Male, Flickr)

At Urbanspace’s Union Square Holiday Market in Manhattan, Squish Marshmallows’ booth is nestled in a cozy nook near the epicenter of the hustle and bustle. The small-batch marshmallow company launched by Katherine Sprung in 2014 is participating in the market for the first time.

Passers-by are taking notice of the new addition, pausing to oogle marshmallows shaped like little tree ornaments, while a young clerk in a hat with Squish’s happy-face logo serves up cups of thick hot chocolate with a sweet, fluffy treat floating on top.

It’s the sort of festive in-person moment that is absent when shoppers tackle their holiday shopping lists on the internet, as they are doing in increasing numbers.

Take, for example, Black Friday — a day traditionally known for bringing shoppers to retail stores en masse to begin their Christmas shopping. This year, it was once again a significant sales day in the United States, but it turned out to be an especially profitable one for online retailers, who pulled in just over $5 billion in that day alone, says online sales tracker Adobe Digital Insights. Bargain hunters were far more likely to take to their phones and tablets than to nearby malls. Physical store foot traffic fell 4.5 percent from Black Friday in 2016, in-store analytics firm RetailNext says.

The shift reflects a larger, year-round trend in the U.S., where people increasingly favor the ease of online shopping. As of 2016, 79 percent of American shoppers said they made purchases online, compared to 22 percent in 2000, a Pew Research Center poll finds.

But there is one “IRL” institution that’s still bringing shoppers out of their homes in droves — pop-up markets like those set up around the holidays. And women business owners are taking advantage of the opportunity to sidestep digital barriers and meet their customers face-to-face.

Take Gillian Steinhardt, whose jewelry venture is one of 40 businesses showcasing its wares at the Grand Central Holiday Fair in New York City. She is involved in the market as a member of Au Showroom, a collaborative — or, as she calls it, a sisterhood — of women jewelers.

Initially, Steinhardt was skeptical about whether participating in the indoor fair would help her business. But she says that, over her years of involvement, she has found a new group of repeat customers, including some who returned to Grand Central this season specifically to find her jewelry.

Steinhardt added that, outside of the market, she doesn’t interact much with her clients. Most of the year, she focuses on developing wholesale relationships with stores and on growing her online sales, “with the odd trunk show here and there.” But at the markets, “you get to be in front of your customer, to meet your customer.”

Sprung, who has a retail shop in the East Village, says that she has found a new clientele for her sweets by being part of a holiday market. The booth in Union Square offers “the perfect opportunity to bring our products to people who might not have heard of us, or able to make it over to our shop, and just stumble upon our booth commuting,” she says.

For both women, involvement in pop-up markets could prove helpful in realizing some of their short-term and long-term business goals.

For Sprung, the top goal is touching larger numbers of people. “No matter what your social media presence or press, there are always going to be lots of people who have never heard of your brand or experienced your product,” she says. “By popping up in different locations with high traffic and notability, you have that exposure and opportunity to get into the eyes and hands of lots of potential new clients and customers.”

Steinhardt, meanwhile, is seeking personal interactions with customers, so she can “see what people react to … what they are buying, and how they react to prices.” Those precious moments will “help guide the collection further,” she says.